The Philadelphia Theatre Company is back on sure footing with Seminar, a splendid production of Theresa Rebeck’s accomplished drama about love and literature.
Set in a swanky apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the play focuses on a small writing class. The four students—two men and two women—are all in their mid- to late 20s, and they’re an interesting lot. Douglas (played by the always entertaining Luigi Sottile) is the most promising of the group. His uncle was a celebrated writer, and the family name, combined with his modicum of talent, has led to several of his pieces being published. In Sottile’s portrayal, Douglas is also the most amusing of the quartet, particularly at the play’s outset, when, in a wonderfully pompous speech, he bemoans the various writing workshops he’s attended. His general grandiosity—aimed at masking his insecurities on everything from writing to women—has made him an enemy of the other male student, Martin (Matt Harrington). Unlike Douglas, the nebbish Martin wears his self-doubt on his sleeve, refusing to let anyway see his work despite the small fortune he’s paid for the class. Adding to the rift between Douglas and Martin is the fact that they are rivals for the affections of Izzy (Teresa Avia Lim), who, clad in a succession of revealing outfits, uses her beauty to manipulate not only her male classmates, but their lecherous instructor as well. The final member of the quartet is Kate (an immensely likeable Genevieve Perrier), the most down-to-earth scribe in the mix, who also hosts the group in her spacious abode—which, we’re told, has been in her family for years and, despite its nine rooms and ritzy address, costs only $800 per month in rent.
By far the choicest role in Seminar, however, belongs to the spectacular Rufus Collins, who portrays Leonard, the class’ despotic instructor. Each of his students has laid out a hefty sum—$5,000 for a 10-week session—for the privilege of having Leonard read their work, and his ruthlessly honest critiques are brutal, hurtful, misogynistic and yet often extremely amusing. Expertly directed by Scott Schwartz with both warmth and a swift sense of pacing, the characters are clearly defined not only by Rebeck’s script and the actors’ actions, but also by costume designer Alejo Vietti, whose choice of attire for each character tells us almost as much about them as the words they say.
Seminar isn’t a perfect play. Though it has a number of clever surprises, there are other revelations that we see coming from a mile away. And while Kate and especially Leonard are wonderfully complicated, enigmatic characters that often defy our expectations, the other three unfortunately lack the same depth and fascination.
An intimate and thoughtful exploration of writers and the almost-impossible task of getting their work published, Seminar will undoubtedly be enjoyed by fans of the Rebeck-created NBC television show Smash. Like Smash—which offers a dramatized behind-the-scenes look at commercial theater—in Seminar, Rebeck lays bare the creative process and the cruelties associated with it.
“As a writer, I have always considered it my job to describe the world as I know it; to struggle toward whatever portion of the truth is available to me,” she quotes on the first page of her website. Rebeck’s Seminar presents us with her truth about the publishing business, and in doing so, convinces us that writing, like life, is not for the faint of heart.
Through April 14. $46-$59. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Sts. philadelphiatheatrecompany.org